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The dissenter is every human being at those moments of his life when he resigns momentarily from the herd and thinks for himself.
Archibald Macleish

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Varying Verity - Truth never changes, only our understanding into what it is . . .


Dissent Needs to be Practiced


Be not simply good; be good for something.

I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least", starts off one of the most famous treaties on dissent. Henry David Thoreau's essay - Civil Disobedience is commonly understood to be the bible for civil disobedience. Most students in the subject are well aware of its significance on history. But how many have ever looked closely at the arguments?

Dissent can be broadly defined as a rejection of established conventions and a resistance to compliance in codes that are reflected in current laws. The intellectual opposition to established practices, rests upon the natural right of the individual to be ruled by his conscience. While civil disobedience takes pro active measures to confront and contest those customs or ordinances.

We have all been lead to believe and never question that a civilized society is one that must be ruled under laws. We are also told that a democracy is the finest example of a governance state. So how could it be justified that protest against a legitimate authority be rightful? Thoreau would reply that - His individualism endows individuals as sovereign, especially in a democracy, and the government only holds its power by delegation from free individuals. Any individual may, then, elect to stand apart from the domain of law.

The notion that one is obligated to exhaust every legal avenue is dubious, since justice delayed is justice denied. Thoreau argued that patience in fighting an injustice perpetuates the injustice. In the tradition which justifies civil disobedience by appeal to higher law, legal niceties count for relatively little.

Critics like to attack this idea with the Rousseauian contention that we must obey the law under a contract with other members of our society. As professor Peter Suber so astutely points out: "that those who object deeply to the injustices committed by the state can, and should, relinquish the benefits they receive from the state by living a life of voluntary simplicity and poverty; this form of sacrifice is in effect to revoke one's tacit consent to obey the law. Another of Thoreau's replies is that consent to join a society and obey its laws must always be express, and never tacit."

While the most tame at heart fear that granting such universal rights as self determination to each individual, will result in unbridled anarchy, Thoreau would defend that the state of anarchy has value and is natural. Central to this dispute lies the character that society seeks to claim it has the right to define the rights of the individual. While Thoreau rejects such authority resides within the collective will, he would accept that anarchy may have the potential for abuse, but that despotism is much worse. Thoreau would conclude that one simply must not lend one's weight to an unjust cause - "disobey when obedience would cause more harm than disobedience."

Consider the following quotes from Thoreau:

"It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience."

"If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth--certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn."

The appeal of Thoreau is the purity of the essence of his beliefs, and the example that he practiced in his own life. In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau expressed his belief in the power and, indeed, the obligation of the individual to determine right from wrong, independent of the dictates of society: ". . . any man more right than his neighbors, constitutes a majority of one . . . "

If dissent to immoral constraints is the ultimate obligation of the devoted citizen, then why are so few willing to exercise their responsibilities? Isn't it their true civic duty to challenge the corruption and set the example for its correction? Dissent has at the core of its nature, the quest for moral conduct. When Thoreau urges that if a law "requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law", he is consistent with the rulings of the California Supreme Court.  In (Hallinan v Committee of Bar Examiners of State Bar, 1966, p. 239), it gives tacit approval to breaking the law as long as it is done within the framework of civil disobedience: "If we were to deny to every person who has engaged in... nonviolent civil disobedience... the right to enter a licensed profession, we would deprive the community of the services of many highly qualified persons of the highest moral courage".

Civil disobedience as a concept has been developed, defined, and justified as an act involving open and public violation of the law while volunteering to accept the legal penalties. This absolute openness - the lack of any attempt to avoid detection and prosecution - is essential in reaffirming respect for the process of law and accountability.

The dissent that Thoreau promotes has as its objective the restoration of a legitimate sense of lawful conduct. This moral directive is at odds with the proponent of the corrupt practices of State abuse. It is for this reason that he is depicted as a prototype of anarcho-syndicalists, when the only union he ever sought to enjoin was that of the harmony within the society. The means and moral fabric of sincere dissent is the supreme threat to evil regimes. No wonder that men of heartfelt courage are willing to accept his cry. "It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if gives it no thought, not to give practically his support." Only when we withdraw our implicit support from depravity, in the guise of law, will we become bona fide citizens.


Rebel With a Cause:
Remembering Thomas Paine
by George F. Smith

Thomas Paine was the American Revolution's preeminent pamphleteer.  Born in England in 1737, Paine was largely self-educated and had had two failed marriages and one failed career as a tax collector before a chance meeting with Benjamin Franklin in London.  Franklin found Paine impressive and urged him to emigrate to America, which he did in 1774. Paine's letter of introduction from Franklin secured him a job at The Pennsylvania Journal, where he soon became an editor. His new position in a fledgling country was the perfect setting for his intellect.  On January 10, 1776, he published his 50-page polemic, Common Sense, which almost overnight turned the country towards revolution.

Paine wrote Common Sense for the common man -- in direct, clear language.  "It was read by cobblers in their shops, bakers by their ovens, teachers in their schools, and by officers in the army to their standing ranks." [1]

He laid out argument after argument championing a complete break with England:  "Europe is too thickly planted with kingdoms to be long at peace, and whenever a war breaks out between England and any foreign power, the trade of America goes to ruin, because of her connection with Britain."

And again: "Men of passive tempers look somewhat lightly over the offenses of Britain, and, still hoping for the best, are apt to call out, 'Come, we shall be friends again for all this.'"  Did you lose your house to fire, your property to theft, or does your family lack a bed to sleep on or food to nourish them because of British transgressions, Paine asks.  Did they kill a parent or child and leave you a "ruined and wretched survivor?"  If they did and you can still shake hands with "the murderers, then whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant." [2]

For many colonists his pamphlet was the kick in the pants they needed to demand independence.  Common Sense sold 500,000 copies, roughly equal to 75 million copies today, and raised Paine from obscurity to international fame.  [3]

Not everyone rallied to his call to arms.  A rich loyalist from the colony of Maryland, James Chalmers, wrote a rebuttal to Paine's pamphlet called Plain Truth.  Chalmers even had the honor of having his essay appear in Philadelphia's most popular bookstore, Robert Bell's shop, which had carried the first edition of Common Sense.  Plain Truth came out about two months after Paine's work.

"Unfortunately for Chalmers, he had done precisely the wrong thing," historian Chris New tells us. [4]  While Paine's prose was simple enough for semiliterates to digest, Chalmers adopted a high literary style full of historical references that only the well-educated could comprehend.  Most loyalists were learned men.  It was the "great unwashed," the farmers and blacksmiths, who needed to hear his arguments.

Chalmers called Paine a "political quack" for criticizing the English constitution and assailed Paine's love of democracy, which in the 18th century was held in low regard.  Democracies have always been the playgrounds of demagogues, Chalmers correctly pointed out.  John Adams fully agreed.  Though he called his era "The Age of Paine," later in life he described Common Sense as "a poor ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, crapulous mass." [5]

One wonders about the motivation behind this assessment, inasmuch as Adams admitted in a letter to his wife Abigail that Common Sense "contained a tolerable summary of the arguments which [he] had been repeating again and again in Congress for nine months." [6]  Also, Common Sense was published anonymously at first, and many colonists thought Adams had written it.  Having an unknown writer take center stage in the call for independence, especially one recently arrived from England, could have been embarrassing for Adams.

While Chalmers' Plain Truth sold under the noses of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, in other areas of the country the rebels undermined their cause by having it seized.  "If such doings are the first fruits of American liberty," Chalmers wailed, "grant me Heaven!" [7]

Still, Plain Truth was widely read and might have won more converts had it not been for some unfortunate timing.  Shortly after it was released, the Americans chased the British from Boston with artillery swiped from Fort Ticonderoga.  Was winning a war with England impossible, as Chalmers had claimed?  The rebels no longer thought so.

During the war Paine fought briefly in the army under General Nathanael Greene, from August, 1776, till January, 1777.  The patriot cause fared poorly during this period, and morale suffered.  In a letter to George Mason, General Washington wrote, "the history of this war is a history of false hopes . . . our efforts are in vain." [8]  Desertion and discouragement plagued the troops.

But Paine had written a new pamphlet, The American Crisis, which by December, 1776 was being read throughout Philadelphia.  "Instantly it was seized upon.  Everyone quoted it, for its words seemed to spring from the very soul of Washington's army and of the leader himself:

"These are the times that try men's souls . . . Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered.  Yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph." [9]

When soldiers wondered whether enlisting for the Cause was too high a price, they found an answer in Paine: "What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: It is dearness only that gives everything its value."

When the fighting and marching seemed endless, Paine's prose sustained them: "Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated."

Paine wrote 13 Crisis papers during the war.  In his second installment, Paine became the first person ever to write the phrase, "The United States of America."  [10]  He didnt limit himself to inspirational authorship, however.  He once went to France and brought back a shipload of ammunition, clothes, and money.  When the war ended he opened his final Crisis pamphlet with the words, "The times that tried men's souls are over - and the greatest and completest revolution the world ever knew, gloriously and happily accomplished." [11]

Some historians regard Paine as the country's first abolitionist.  His inaugural article for The Pennsylvania Journal, published on March 8, 1775, denounced slavery and called for its end.  The essay led to the formation of the first American anti-slavery society a month later in Philadelphia.  Paine was also the drafter and signer of the March, 1780 Act of Pennsylvania, which made Pennsylvania the first state to abolish slavery. [12]

Paine's life was not easy, especially after publishing The Age of Reason, a 1790s book critical of the Bible.  He opposed tyranny in all forms, including the church, and never blinked in doing so.  America was fortunate to have someone of such uncommon courage, dedication and genius fighting for our independence.


1.  George F. Scheer and Hugh F. Rankin, Rebels & Redcoats: The American Revolution Through the Eyes of Those Who Fought and Lived It, DeCapo Press, 1957, p. 150.

2.  Common Sense, Thomas Paine

3.  Common Sense, publisher review, 4.  A Loyalist Answers Thomas Paine, M. Christopher New

5.  Ibid.

6.  Rebels & Redcoats, p. 150.

7.  A Loyalist Answers

8.  Thomas Paine and The Age of Reason, Joseph Lewis

 9.  Rebels & Redcoats, p. 210.

10.  The American Crisis, II, Thomas Paine

11.  The American Crisis, XIII, Thomas Paine

12.  African Slavery in America, Thomas Paine

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